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Get Money, Smoke Hostiles, Further Democracy

January 25, 2011

Robert Kagan’s defense of Defense is pretty comprehensive – and has a lot worth talking about, even if you disagree with most of it. There’s a lot worth sniping at too – like Kagan’s incredulity that sensible people would want to cut airport security (you really think more TSA money is making us more secure?), or his ability to somehow deflect blame to realist views on grand strategy and defense planning for the follies of Afghanistan and the Iraq invasion.

Kagan is essentially correct in pointing out that axing the defense budget is not the solution to America’s long-term fiscal woes, at least to the extent they have a solution. Most of the fiscal doom projections already assume reductions in defense spending to more historically normal levels. However, this does not mean that in the short term, it would be nice to free up some money for necessary domestic spending without contributing to increasing the deficit, or that doing so would result in the end of the world as we know it. But we do need to begin a broader conversation about what the country’s fiscal and strategic priorities are going to be, and if undergoing an economic crisis in the midst of two wars is not a good time to begin this, we’re simply asking for history to blindside us again.

Having dispelled the urgency of cutting defense spending for long-term fiscal health, Kagan begins his explanation of why it’s necessary at all. He asserts that due to terrorism, conventional instability in East Asia and the potential for conflict in the Middle East, the US would be foolish to cut back on defense spending now. Kagan credits the offshore balancing realists for recognizing that the only way defense cuts can come would be for a radical redefinition in America’s strategy for confronting these problems, and of course rejects it.

Kagan asserts that offshore balancing rejects a key tenet of US grand strategy since WWII – creating an international liberal order which deters war, fosters open markets, and promotes democracy. I largely agree with this point – the impact of the US decision to put an end to conventional power politics in Europe and refuse to withdraw from great power politics after WWII had enormous effects on the past 50 years of world history. The US did have an enormous role in creating a pacified Europe, a global free market system, and international order. It also did so at an enormous – and voluntary – cost. Kagan implies that if we withdraw the military might that created this order, the whole edifice might come tumbling down, and the world will revert to that prospect so awful to most Americans – the history that came before our involvement in it.

Of course, things have changed. It’s not 1938. It’s not 1948. It’s not even 1978. The US pacifier is not nearly as essential as it was then. Thanks to America’s success in fostering stability, free markets, and democracy, countries such as Japan, Germany, South Korea, and others are much less in need of US security than they were before. Even South Korea is far more capable of defending itself than previously – the days when the DPRK could roll down to Pusan are probably long gone, and even were the US to leave, South Korea would have the money to continue fielding a formidable military and develop a nuclear arsenal. Kagan seems to think it unreasonable to expect these states to pay more of the cost of their own defense. He does not spell out why, but the implication is that if the US fails to “reassure” these states, they will go their own way on security matters, and demonstrate what US grand strategy has, in the interest of avoiding that aforementioned return to political history as usual, tried to hide: that the world has outlived US order.

The diffusion of wealth and military power has fundamentally altered the global strategic landscape. In addition to paying for its own security, the US is also paying for that of its own rivals’. The energy resources and trade routes the US protects allow other states to enrich themselves in peacetime. This is not unusual, and it does not automatically mean we should change policies – however, it confirms what should be obvious – that every world order contains the seeds of its own undoing, and that the policies which saw its creation are not necessarily the most sound for its preservation.

Kagan oddly throws in a critique of liberal idealism into the mix, as if realists like Layne and Mearsheimer believed the world is naturally peaceful, free, and prosperous, or even thought things like democracy and free trade systems merited US-led preservation in and of themselves. It is Kagan who is far closer to “last man” liberalism than proponents of offshore balancing. For Kagan, US military power is the vanguard and praetor of liberalism – remove it from the equation, and it falters, reinforce it, and liberalism grows stronger. Again, Kagan ignores the possibility of any dynamics that might subvert the progress of liberalism emerging from the same geopolitical and historical processes. Kagan, like the liberal idealists, still assumes that US policy can eliminate major war, freeze ideological change and modern geopolitical power relations, or at least prevent them from altering the order the US is preserving.

Does this discussion seem abstract, detached, and kind of silly for a budgetary argument? It occurs to me this is exactly the problem. Kagan turns a debate about defense spending into an argument about values, history, and the nature of international order without actually explaining what military forces he believes are and are not necessary to accomplish his goals. How many carrier groups are necessary to deter rising powers, and how many bases does the US need to accomplish Kagan’s three goals of fighting terrorism, balancing in East Asia and stabilizing the Middle East? How many divisions? Do we have enough? Do we need more? Do we have too many?

Sure, it’s hard to imagine the US can do “more with less.” But what does the US need to do “enough?” Do we just take the Pentagon’s word for it? Or Congress’s?  Not only is Kagan’s model of international order overly simplistic, it also nicely escapes the actual debate about what resources the US needs for its existing strategy by claiming cuts necessarily imply a strategy Kagan believes is geopolitically and historically untenable. Kagan talks about “the price of power” but we never talk about what we’re putting on the tab. Whether you’re committed to US primacy forever or just want to defend the quarter sphere, you need to be able to explain your grand strategy in terms of the resources it requires, and explain how concrete items of expenditure contribute to your grand strategic vision. That we simply assert the US strategy needs what it already has (or more) and assume reducing resources require a drastic change in strategy without asking why is part of how we got here in the first place. Ultimately, we’re left with the increasingly hollow exhortation to “get money, smoke hostiles, further democracy.” Just another day in the end of grand strategic history.

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